14. Liz Tells a Story

May 13, 2010

The drawing of the cat’s head had grown more elaborate in the past two days: its now orange, blue, and green eyes spun with intricate patterns beneath elaborately decorative eyebrows, a mustachio curled out in a lacy handlebar, and the cat’s fangs twisted like drill bits. Little rats paraded around the edge of the board and in between words and lines.

Arnold stopped completely still, reading aloud the messages through which rodents gamboled. Then he grabbed a black marker from the counter and wrote: Les humaines sont les assassins de toute choses. He stood back and smiled triumphantly. Really funky French, thought Rose, uncharitably. Even though she might agree with the sentiment, she found Arnold too annoying to agree with him in particular. Or in fractured French.

“I had a cat who killed a rat,” said Liz.

Everyone turned toward her.

“He was a young cat, not even a year old, a gray-and-black tabby cat. One day I looked out the window and there he was walking down the drive with this big something hanging out of his mouth. It was almost as big as he was. And he was swaggering. Even under the weight of the rat, he was swaggering. Honestly. All the cats in the apartment next door were following him, and when he got to the middle of the driveway, he dropped the rat, and all the cats sat down in a big circle around him. There must have been five or six of them. They all faced into the center of the circle where my cat stood with this rat, and sat with their bellies against the concrete and their paws tucked under their chest, like cats do when they’re meditating. And they were all looking down as if they weren’t really watching every move he made, as if they were indifferent spectators.

“Then he started to play with the rat, which was dead as a door nail. I mean really dead. Throwing it up in the air and batting it around, playing with it. All the other cats were completely quiet. After about fifteen minutes, he stopped. He sat down and ate the rat, starting with its tail and back feet. He ate the rat—every bit of it, guts and everything—all the way up to its brain cage. Then he swaggered away down the driveway again. And the other cats just, poof, disappeared.

“I went outside and sure enough there was just half a rat’s head, with its ears and yellow teeth and whiskers. I threw it out.”

There was a silence while everyone contemplated picking up and throwing out the remnants of a rat’s head. “Wow!” said Nate, “Good story.”

“Excuse me,” said a young woman in a pea coat and beret, breaking into their midst, “does anybody work here? I really don’t know much about classical music.”

After several minutes of interrogating the young woman and cruising the CDs to settle on Chopin’s nocturnes, Rose returned to the front counter to find only Liz, reading the booklet for the CD currently playing over the speakers. The alarming Bob Winston had appeared at the top of the stairs at the back door, and everyone had scattered like leaves. As he made his way to the counter, Rose put on a serious and business-like look. She was pleased: at least he had seen her dealing with a customer. How often did that happen?

Liz gasped. “You have it!” she exclaimed.

“Wha … wha?”

“The shawl,” she beamed, “you found it!”

“I was … I was … lost and found,” he stammered, holding out the red-and-black-check shawl.

“It’s the shawl that belongs to the homeless man! Remember, Rose? I just saw him. He was in the park, and I gave him a dollar,” Liz was flushed with delight. “He’s out there right now!”

Rose nodded. Yes, she remembered, it belonged to that homeless man who seemed to haunt the streets around Plutonium.

“You have to give it back to him,” asserted Liz.

There was a pause, and then Bob Winston thrust the shawl into Rose’s hands, and fled.

Oh well, thought Rose.

“Yeah, I can do that on my break,” she mumbled.

Liz frowned and, eyes downcast, started fiddling with the pricing gun on the counter.

“What’s up?”

“I broke up with John.”

There was a pause.

“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Rose, congratulating herself on her sympathetic tone. John was a depressive and a slacker as far as Rose had been able to tell, one best shed as quickly as possible.

“On Christmas Day. It was awful,” Liz said quietly, and then she added more defiantly, “And I’m looking for a new job. I’m not leaving mine yet, not until I find something, but I’m starting out the New Year early with new resolutions: get rid of the slacker, and get a new job, a meaningful job.”

“Sounds good.”

“But until then I want to do something for Sid. I saw him downstairs, asleep in Jazz, and he reeks, Rose, worse than usual. The smell was so bad I could smell him from the stairway.” Liz looked pleadingly at Rose, her eyes seemed to spin like the cat head’s on Bob Winston’s white board. “Can you help?”

Rose was taken aback. “Uh, the problem with that is he won’t talk to me. He’ll only ever talks to Nate. And, uh, Brad.”

“Well, then how about Brad?”

“Uh, you could ask.” Liz was a terror, but a kind-hearted terror, thought Rose. “He’s downstairs in Jazz right now.”

“Maybe I could ask him out on his break. Would he be offended?

“I don’t think so,” said Rose. “Brad’s a helpful sort of guy. And he’s really nice to his cat.”

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